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372,000 remain without electricity

More than 370,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers were still waiting for power yesterday, and company executives cautioned that it could be Friday, more than a week after the first outages occurred, before power is restored to all.

BGE President and Chief Executive Frank O. Heintz blamed the slow pace of recovery on a storm that he called the worst ever faced by the utility and said its economic consequences are "very, very serious ... throughout the community."

Heintz rejected suggestions that his company's response to Tropical Storm Isabel was less than effective. By this morning, he said, the utility would have more than 600 repair crews on the job from 27 states and Canada.

"This company has mobilized an army of linemen to get the last customer" connected, he said.

But even with more than 4,100 workers in the field, Heintz cautioned that the number of customers without power would decline more slowly in coming days because the utility had focused first on repairs that would restore service to the largest numbers of customers.

It takes just as much labor to restore power to two or three homes as it does to bring 500 back on line, he noted. Rain in the forecast this week also could slow repairs, he said.

The storm's high winds knocked down thousands of trees, sometimes several on a single line. BGE had logged more than 6,000 reports of downed power lines and had taken care of 3,000 as of Friday, company officials said.

Service was most seriously disrupted in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, BGE executives said. But no part of the utility's 2,300-square-mile service area spanning eight counties from Carroll and Howard in the west to Calvert in the east was left untouched.

At 2 p.m. yesterday, the utility estimated that 372,000 customers were without service, including 113,000 in Baltimore County; 91,000 in Anne Arundel; 52,000 in Baltimore City; 37,000 in Howard; 30,000 in Harford; 24,000 in Prince George's; 17,000 in Carroll; 6,000 in Calvert; and 2,000 in Montgomery.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that they were satisfied with the utility's performance thus far, though O'Malley cautioned that consumer unrest might be ahead.

Heintz acknowledged that public patience could wear thin in coming days but said he hoped the utility would get credit for its efforts.

"I think, in this circumstance, the customers have understood the fury," Heintz said. "They understood this was a kind of lifetime-event hurricane. They understand that the damage is extensive."

In September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd swept through Maryland, BGE found itself facing heavy criticism from then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the state Public Service Commission after it took several days to fully restore service.

More than half the company's 1.1 million customers lost power in that storm, many for several days.

A 15-member task force appointed by Glendening suggested that BGE install automated phone systems to give customers accurate estimates of when power would be restored; do more routine tree trimming and bury more electric lines.

BGE responded in 2000 with $2 million in announced operating improvements, including more sophisticated telephone answering systems.

The utility, which called Floyd a 40-year storm, said its goal was to make sure that no customer was without power for longer than four days.

"No one wants to be without power for more than a day," said Stephen F. Wood, then BGE's vice president of electric transmission and distribution. "But when we get into the fifth day, the public opposition is very high."

At that time, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers blamed a sharp decline in the number of BGE line workers and service operators for the long delays.

Yesterday, Jim Hunter, an international representative of the IBEW, sharply criticized BGE and other utilities for slashing their work forces, which leaves trees untrimmed and companies relying on help from across the country.

"Everybody has reduced so much that you can't borrow as much from each other because you're already so short-staffed," Hunter said. "This trend is virtually everywhere. It's cut after cut after cut. We were very, very fortunate that we weren't directly hit by the storm."

Hunter asserted that job losses and other utility cost-cutting in recent years was a direct byproduct of federal deregulation, which opened a once-sleepy industry to competition in power sales.

BGE President Heintz said yesterday that he was proud of the company's preparations for Isabel and said cost-cutting had nothing to do with the repair challenge the company now faces.

A handful of linemen is not the issue, Heintz said.

"In a storm of this magnitude, no utility is self-sufficient," he said. "This is not a staffing issue."

He denied that deregulation had anything to do with the current struggle to repair the system.

"The business of transmission and the distribution system ... remains regulated," he said.

Other BGE officials denied complaints that the utility had fallen short in its tree-trimming efforts.

"Every year we spend $15 million on tree-trimming, and we meet harsh resistance from [residents] and the counties," said spokeswoman Rose Kendig. "Green is good, but trees and power lines don't work together."

BGE regularly trims trees on a three- to five-year maintenance schedule, she said.

Heintz said he expects to file detailed reports with the Public Service Commission on the company's performance during the current crisis.

"I am confident that the commission and others ... are going to find ... that this storm response has been well planned," Heintz said.

Hurricane Floyd cost BGE $16 million. Heintz said Isabel could end up costing the utility two or three times that amount.

BGE is not alone. The slow recovery of service in the Pepco service territory in Montgomery and Prince George's counties has drawn sharp complaints from state legislators.

"People are calling me and asking, 'Have you seen a Pepco truck?'" said Del. Jean B. Cryor, who has criticized the Washington-based utility for delays in restoring service to hundreds of thousands of customers. "That's like asking, 'Have you seen a unicorn? Have you seen Camelot?' We had a bad storm two weeks ago and people were furious then about how long it took to get power back.

"My God, what if it was as big a hurricane as they said it was going to be?" asked the Montgomery County Republican. "Look at the problems we're still having. Pepco should just tell the truth. They should just say, 'We cannot handle a big storm. We don't have the manpower to handle a big storm.'"

Pepco still had 230,000 customers without power as of 5 p.m.

yesterday.

On the Atlantic Coast, Conectiv Power Delivery President Joseph M. Rigby said yesterday that the company had restored power to nearly 320,000 customers.

About 30,000 Conectiv customers in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia were still without service. Of that number, about 8,000 were without power in Maryland.

Rigby said power to many of those customers would be restored by midnight yesterday, with electricity in more rural areas back on line by late today or early tomorrow.

"This has been the most significant storm ever in our history," Rigby said during a conference call. "I want to acknowledge how difficult this has been for [customers]. I want to acknowledge the length of time they have been out and thank them sincerely for their patience. We are focusing our resources on those customers who are still without power, and we are not backing off until we're done."

Heintz and other BGE executives noted the extraordinary logistics involved in the struggle to restore power.

After positioning crews and supplies days before the storm, the company executed prior agreements to borrow crews from utilities across the country.

Housing, feeding and transporting the thousands of out-of-state workers while simultaneously dealing with 607,000 telephone calls and 23,000 service requests was something close to a miracle, Heintz said.

The utility executive noted that BGE scrambled to respond to a barrage of requests from public officials, including pleas to restore power to water and sewage pumping stations, prisons, schools, hospitals and important traffic intersections.

The Howard County Emergency Operations Center had its own emergency when power failed, Heintz noted.

"There was no part of our service territory that didn't have some urgent problem," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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